Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [LC-DIG-van-5a52142]
African American Folklorist, Anthropologist, Novelist, and Dramatist
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was a preeminent African American folklorist, ethnographer, and creative writer of Black life in the U.S. South and Caribbean.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891 to John and Lucy Potts Hurston and raised in Eatonville, Florida—the first incorporated Black town in the United States. She and her siblings attended the Hungerford School in Eatonville and were taught by students of Booker T. Washington. After her mother’s death in 1904, Hurston was forced to move between relatives and friends, an itinerant existence which would persist throughout much of her life. After moving to Baltimore to live with her sister, Hurston graduated from Morgan Academy (high school) in Baltimore (1918) while working as a maid. She then earned an AA degree in English (1920) at Howard University preparatory school, where she studied with Lorenzo Dow Turner and joined Howard’s literary club and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s literary salon, through which she met leading African American writers of the time.
As she gained recognition for her own writing, Hurston transferred to Barnard College as an English major and studied anthropology with Franz Boas. Hurston was the first and only African American student at Barnard that year. Although her education was funded by a scholarship, she could not live on campus due to segregation. While a student, she began collecting folklore of Black life in her home state of Florida. After earning her BA in English (1928), Hurston continued to study with Boas between 1928-1930 as a graduate student at Columbia University, and conducted fieldwork in the Bahamas.
From 1935 through the 1940s, Hurston was the most published Black female author of her time and one of the most prolific and expert ethnographers and scholars of African diasporic folklore. Hurston’s book, Mules and Men (1935), was among the first published folklore collections by a Black author and brought her international acclaim. She wrote plays, novels, short-stories as well as scholarly articles while teaching part time at Bethune-Cookman College. She completed her heralded novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), while conducting fieldwork for the Florida Federal Writers’ Project. Funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, she researched Black folklore in Jamaica and Haiti. She conducted fieldwork throughout African American communities of the South and Caribbean with a Rosenwald fellowship, and she collaborated with Alan Lomax to collect and document the folk music of Georgia and Florida. She also wrote, staged, and performed several plays out of her ethnographic research for the Federal Theatre Project (1939).
In the 1940s, Hurston taught briefly at small HBCUs. In the 1950s, with failing health, she had to take on odd jobs as she struggled to make ends meet while continuing her writing as well as her research on Black southern and Black Caribbean life.
Hurston received honorary doctorates from Morgan State and Howard Universities and was a member of the American Folklore Society, the American Anthropological Society, the American Ethnological Society, and Zeta Phi Beta. Among her important works:
Mules and Men (1935)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Tell My Horse (1938)